Kentucky head coach John Calipari spent the summer raving about the upcoming 2020-21 roster, noting that this team had the opportunity to be among the best he’d had during his time in Lexington. In recent weeks, various UK coaches and players doubled down on that hype, adding that there is a championship “buzz” around the Kentucky basketball facilities.
“I think we’ve had special teams, really good teams in my six years here,” UK assistant coach Joel Justus said. “When you have special teams, there’s a little bit of a different buzz in the gym. We have that right now.”
“It’s definitely a special group,” graduate transfer guard Davion Mintz added. “Guys are definitely backing up what their résumés said. It’s just very exciting.”
“I think this team does have that (opportunity to be special),” redshirt freshman guard Dontaie Allen said.
When asked about his thoughts on the roster, Kentucky basketball assistant Jai Lucas continued to build hype, singling out several players as elite talents.
“I mean, he is a special, special shot blocker,” Lucas said of freshman forward Isaiah Jackson. “I think he is probably one of the ones that is going to surprise a lot of people this season, just his play and development from the last time I saw him and where he is today. I think he’s a name that people will start to talk about and mention as we start playing games.”
As for Terrence Clarke, Lucas says the versatile 6-foot-7 guard out of Boston, MA is a dynamic scoring threat and knows how to use his size, something most young athletes don’t do.
“You know, it’s funny him and BJ [Boston] can play with the ball, they can play without the ball,” he said. “The one thing with Terrence is he has a knack for scoring. That’s kind of just his thing. He’s a person you can post up, you can play him in pick and roll, you can put him anywhere. With him and Brandon, they’re able to do a lot of stuff. With Terrence, the one thing that I didn’t really realize is how big he is. He really is 6-7, so he has great size and he plays to his size, which a lot of young kids really don’t do a lot.
“I think positionally, he’s just a guard. You gotta just put him out there and he can do a bunch of different things. I don’t think he fits in one lane at all.”
Speaking of Boston, Lucas praised the five-star freshman for his “natural” basketball abilities and shooting.
“He is a natural basketball player, he just plays the game. He’s got great size, he can really shoot,” he said. “He’s really good off the ball, coming off screens and moving without the ball. And he can play with the ball. He has good vision, he’s a good basketball player.
“For him to be so slight-of-build, he never looks like he’s getting physically manhandled. He plays with a kind of slim strength. And he’s got a good quick twitch to them, you can never really touch him because he’s already past you. He’s got everything there, it’s just about continuing to create habits within his game that help him carry over all the way through the season.”
Going down the list of scholarship players, Lucas said Olivier Sarr’s approved waiver for immediate eligibility “changes the whole landscape of the team,” a massive relief for the program.
“It [was a relief] for everybody, especially for him because he was waiting on it for a while,” Lucas said. “When it finally became official, he could take a deep breath. Us as coaches, as well, because he’s a really good player. He’s been playing really good, and he’s gotten better. His body has changed in the time I’ve been here, he’s gotten a lot better since I’ve been here. You could see everyone start to relax more because, if he wasn’t available or something happened, it changes the whole landscape of the team. We’re all excited for him to be here, as well as Jacob [Toppin].”
Kentucky’s lone returnee from the 2019-20 rotation, Keion Brooks Jr., is only a sophomore, but acts like a senior. The maturity and confidence is turning heads inside the basketball facilities.
“I tease Keion all the time, with him only being a sophomore, he acts like he’s a senior,” Lucas said. “He just has this presence and carries himself like he’s been here for four years already, even though he’s only been here a year. And it’s funny because that’s how the freshman look at them too, you know? They look at him like he’s a senior. The one thing I notice about him is his confidence, he just has a great confidence about him right now. I think he’s very confident in the work he put in over the summer and the time he’s been away. You can really see he’s confident in what he’s been doing and I can’t wait till he’s back out there.”
As for UK’s other veteran presence, graduate transfer guard Davion Mintz, he is pushing freshman standout Devin Askew in practice, with both players benefiting from the competition.
“They’re doing good. I think one of the biggest things you learn when you get up here is the competition level and how everyone pushes each other, and I think that’s what’s going on with Devin and Davion,” Lucas said. “With Davion being older and having some scars, he’s been through battles. Him putting that pressure on Devin, I think they’re both getting better from going against each other every day.”
Between Kentucky’s oldest players on the roster in Sarr and Mintz, they have added a “sense of seriousness” to the locker room.
“It helps with getting guys ready for practice,” Lucas said. “When you have younger kids and younger teams, some of the stuff from high school takes a while to get rid of. That’s one thing, I don’t know how Coach Cal and the staff have done this for so long, coaching so many freshmen and underclassmen every year, it’s something completely different than what I’ve been used to. The one thing those two have done is add a sense of seriousness, if that’s the right word, to getting prepared for practice and what we’re trying to do and accomplish.”